Executive Functions

So it has been a busy few months for me. First, I have been teaching a class, “Power, Privilege, and Oppression,” at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. I had not intended to teach again this semester, having taught a class on race and public policy in the spring, but the person who usually does this class had a death in the family shortly before the start of the semester and asked me to fill in. And I’ve not regretted it—my students are genuinely wonderful people, and I think somehow we have created enough mutual trust among each other that we can discuss some pretty heady topics and even share our personal experiences with each other. After each class ends, I start thinking of all the points I need to make next time, so a lot of my mental runtime ends up devoted to the forthcoming lecture and discussion.

But that’s not the only thing occupying my time. This year, I have also been putting together an edited volume on lynching in the state of Arkansas, which I have under contract with a university press. That has been a chore. First, get ten scholars or so to commit to the project. Then follow up with them as the deadline comes for their respective chapters. Then start gently harassing those who are late with their contributions. Then threaten. Then start editing the chapters knowing that everyone will have a different style but that the chapters should have some common ground regarding how they are written—but also that each writer is using whatever version of the Chicago Manual with which they are most familiar, not the latest one to which you have to standardize everything. Then put all the chapters together and make sure it works as a single volume, that there aren’t wild discrepancies among reported death counts, for one. Then send it to the publisher. Then, a few months later, get back the remarks from the anonymous reviewers and try to figure out how best to communicate suggestions for revision to the chapter authors without damaging egos. Then set a new due date and start the process again. Then send the final manuscript (one hopes) off to the publisher and deal with the subsequent paperwork. And then wait for it to go through the review process again, which is where I am at right now.

I am also writing the occasional movie review for a local free weekly, the Arkansas Times (see a list of my work here). I happened upon this gig rather accidentally. You see, here in central Arkansas, there is apparently enough of an Indian population to make it profitable for one of the local theaters to show select Indian blockbusters. The wife and I started watching these out of pure curiosity at first but quickly began to appreciate the spectacle of Bollywood productions—they are like Arkansas weather in that, if you don’t like it right now, just wait five minutes, for it will be quite different then. Anyhow, I ran into my friend Lindsey, editor of the Times, out and about one day and started playfully harassing him about ignoring this interesting phenomenon of Little Rock being a major Indian cinema site: “You need to have someone reviewing these movies!” And he did what all good editors do; he said, “Okay, I’ll need 600 to 700 words by Monday. Look forward to hearing from you.” So I did the odd Indian movie, and then this summer, when the regular reviewer had to take a break, was asked to fill in a bit. It’s honestly fun to write something sort and relatively inconsequential, and the check I get in the mail usually pays for the dinner the wife and I have afterward.

But even that does not summarize everything on my plate these days. I also agreed, long before I was asked to teach the aforementioned class, to serve as a consultant on a documentary film. I don’t know that I can talk about it that much, but suffice to say that it’s been a revealing experience, seeing how such things are put together.

Oh, and I also have my regular nine-to-five job. So it’s been quite the last few months.

And I am honestly trying to remain a decent human being through all of this. My wife and I talked a lot before I agreed to take the teaching assignment, the last of these which landed on my plate, and I admitted to her that doing this would likely mean a significant disengagement from the sphere of home—that is, I would have to spend much of my evenings and weekends preparing lectures or reviewing video clips or editing chapters or writing reviews and could not be counted on to prepare meals or conduct household maintenance at the same level. She was okay taking on the bulk of the responsibility. After all, most of these were paying gigs. I’m obviously not counting the book production—I still have not seen royalties from my earlier scholarly monograph, although it racked up a few awards that helped us take our first vacation in six years. Money is not a bad thing, though I would not work at this level for a long period of time solely for the sake of my bank balance—I like my free time and miss it quite a bit. I had not intended that my fall be so busy, but we’ve had a few expenses, and I am going to ensure that next year leaves me with more personal time.

I have made some discoveries doing all of this. You see, here lately, I’ve been reading (when I get the chance) a Swedish translation of Walter Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test: Understanding Self-Control and How to Master It (I won the Swedish translation through a Facebook competition—thanks Månpocket!). Honestly, it’s not the sort of book I would have tried to acquire, outside its utility in helping to improve my language skills, but it’s actually proven quite insightful.

The marshmallow test is simple; it started out when Mischel, a psychologist, tested children, offering them one marshmallow now or two if they could wait for a while. Younger children had a particular problem with mastering self-control, but as cognitive development proceeded, they exhibited more, and those who were able to pass the marshmallow test often did better in the various spheres of life, given that delayed gratification is an important component of education, romance, and much more. As Mischel reveals, our decision-making processes are influenced by what he calls a “hot” system of feelings, ruled by the amygdala, which controls fight-or-flight responses and the gratification of immediate, physical needs, and a “cold” system of cognition, managed by the pre-frontal cortex, being the abode of reason and abstract thought. The more stress a person experiences, the more the the limbic system takes charge, reducing the ability for dispassionate thinking on the subject. But as those stressors are removed, cognition becomes possible. Our brain is like a tap that cannot run both hot and cold at the same time—at best, you get lukewarm.

So I’ve had a bit of stress here lately, but I’ve still like going out and raking the leaves or doing the dishes. I can think while doing those things. But my wife has taken on more of the “social” chores, such as calling around for someone to come and trim the tree in our front yard, which had started producing a lot of dead and dry limbs. And it borders on heresy for me to admit this, but I had a sudden understanding of the worth of functionaries, middle-men, administrative assistants—the people who take care of things for others. By no means am I trying to reduce my wife to such a position, but in my present circumstances, she is taking on some of the middle management work that we would normally divvy up.

And it has me thinking. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion put forward the idea that some of the upward concentration of wealth that occurred in the Middle Ages in Europe allowed for the creation of universities and, eventually, the sort of research into the natural world that we now associate with the word “science.” There has to be a certain freedom from the basic constraints of survival to facilitate deeper thinking. It strains against my Marxist leanings to admit there was any value into the accretion of wealth into the hands of a few at that time, but there is a flip side. After all, societies that lack a proper, functioning safety net have much less class mobility not only because the wealthy are hoarding the means of advancement but also because the poor are subject to so many more stressors and, consequently, have less opportunity to engage in prefrontal cortex thinking. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

My broader point is this—We tend to envision (and thus produce) hierarchies as strictly top-down affairs, and thus be imbue the top position with greater prestige and honor. However, what if we thought of our governing structures are mirroring this brain pattern, with everyone existing along some continuum from abstract reasoning to immediate needs? In such a system, we can have differentiated functions without the same negative value judgments we have now against the “lower orders” (if you are an elitist) or the “upper crust” (if you are a populist). Instead, the so-called “lower,” who service the immediate needs, are recognized for making possible the existence of the “upper,” whose job is to develop better ways of managing, in the long term, those basic needs we have. (Of course, many jobs will fall between these two extremes, those who live in the much-derided world of middle management.) But if we can see both ends, and the middle, as mutually reinforcing, in service to each other, then perhaps we can change our valuation and get rid of this top-bottom dichotomy—indeed, the idea of hierarchy itself.

Because when we elect people here in the United States, we tend to vote for people most like us, be they highly educated progressives or “plain-talkin’ folk” you’d most like to have a beer with. We want to see ourselves reflected in the topmost position without any accounting for what that position might actually demand, what that position services, and what sort of structure services that position. And the more we associate ourselves with Candidate A, the more we see Candidate B as the very antithesis of what a president/senator/mayor is, and the more their respective supporters feel themselves estranged from each other; c.f. the 2016 presidential election. And if one group manages a revolution, it puts in charge the people who share its “values” rather than trying to service the broader needs of the community, and then the feedback loop is broken, resulting in your cadre of highly educated Maoists wondering why tens of millions of peasants are starving to death despite the ideologically sound methods of farming you worked out in your latest pamphlet.

The truth is that we cannot get along without each other. The farmer needs the university biologist who develops new breeds of rice, who needs the janitor who keeps her laboratory clean, who needs the doctor who immunizes his children, who needs the bookseller from which she bought her medical school textbooks… and so on and so on. We are all in this together, rural and urban, laborer and thinker. That the rewards of our respective labors are unfairly distributed is, indeed, a failure of policy and imagination, but to believe that one group of us can live without the other is a fantasy. Unfortunately, these fantasies can produce significant pain on the part of those determined to live them.


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